It is 1836 and the room is full of cigar smoke and pomp. We are at a party thrown by Daniel Stern, a well known author, and as well known authors do-- they invite other well-known authors to their fancy cigar smoking parties. Well... and at least one composer. And as we are at most events that will, unknowingly, alter the course of our lives-- he is bored. Hello and welcome to Gin and the Tonic. A reckless unpacking of music history’s weirdest stories. I’m Colin Healy and today’s gin is Bombay Dry. It’s fancy and a bit expensive and was a gift from someone who makes more money than me. And today’s tonic is E. Which stands for Frederic. Frederic Chopin was born in... good lord, so much Polish... Zelazowa Vola in 1810. He was either born on February 22 or on March 1. We don’t know for sure because it was 1810 and children didn’t matter and neither did their birthdays.
Shortly after Chopin was born they moved from Zelazowa Vola, a town that to this day has 65 people, to Warsaw where they lived in a palace because his father was a teacher and that’s how they treated teachers back then. Chopin, or as they said, “the child” as he grew was of “slight build” and “prone to illness.” So he was short and sickly. Par for the course. Also, even though we’re only on episode 2 of this whole thing right now, one thing should be becoming abundantly clear-- you can’t be a genius if you’re not sickly. You can’t get both the mind and body right. It was not allowed back then. Of course, Chopin was a child prodigy who started playing for Dukes and writing polonaises and shit when he was 7. I’m 29 and had to look up how to spell the word “polonaise” for this script. The following year in 1818, the young Chopin would be invited over to play at his friend’s palace-- the son of a Russian Grand Duke. He would play piano for the Grand Duke and his posse, one of which was a high society poet named Julian Niemcewicz (nyemt-SAY-vitch), who would remark in his work of “Little Chopin’s popularity.”
[Musical interlude - upbeat, bright] All the stuff you’d expect happened over the rest of his childhood. Normal stuff-- he went to conservatory, studied music, he was given a diamond ring by the Tsar, he played recitals on weird chimera instruments called crazy shit like the “aeolomelodicon”, a hybrid of the piano and organ, and the “aeolopantaleon”, a hybrid of the piano and a pair of trousers. Oh, and his sister died. [Stop music] After the death of his sister, Frederick would finish school and promptly leave Warsaw. He would not return to Poland for the rest of his life. In 1830, he left for Paris with his last report from Conservatory in hand-- “Chopin F., third-year student, exceptional talent, musical genius.
Paris was actually his second choice. He wanted to go to Italy but it was just too violent. So, he settled on Paris. He joked while trying to obtain his passport that he was going to Paris “only in passing.” Funny. Chopin began to hob-nob around with his contemporaries like Hector Berlioz and Eugene Delacroix and all these other future episodes of this show. But he didn’t find critical success in Paris until 1831, when a review came in that said of Chopin “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” That review was penned by none other Gin and the Tonic’s resident shit-talker and emo darling boy, Robert Schumann. Chopin was in. But one of Chopin’s contemporaries would stand out and become a great friend of his-- and that was Franz Lizst. In music history circles (dorks!) their friendship has endured the ages-- there’s even a web comic about them, it’s called Chopin Lizst (”Shoppin’ List”), look it up, it’s funny.
Like good friends, they also they hated each other. Lizst and Chopin were neighbors and would often share studies in each others parlors. That sounds like a euphemism. They literally would go over to each other’s houses to play piano which is cute-- but not a euphemism for anything sexual. Chopin and Liszt did not have sex. This is history, not my fan-fiction. Lizst wrote like he was the greatest piano player to ever live because he was the greatest piano player who ever lived. I went to school for voice, actually, not piano (if you couldn’t tell), and I performed a piece that Lizst had had the audacity to write for piano and voice, or more so, it was a piano piece that some 19-year old asshole was shouting over in very poor French. Liszt’s vocal pieces are much like the way I make Gin and Tonic’s. It’s mostly gin... and I’m the tonic. Chopin would say of Lizst, “I should like to rob him of the way he plays my studies.” Liszt would often annoy him at concerts when he would play Chopin’s pieces but then add a bunch of shit. Like one incident where Liszt performed one of Chopin’s nocturnes, a slow and somber type of piece-- that Liszt filled with virtuosic embellishments, of course to the great affection of the crowd, proving that even in 19th century popular music, more is more-- but Chopin was not pleased. In fact, after that performance Chopin and Liszt’s friendship grew cold. However, many historians think that it was more the men’s romantic lives that began to make them drift apart-- Liszt was jealous of the affection for Chopin showed by an author named Marie D’Agoult-- better known by her pen name -- Daniel Stern.
It is 1836 and the room is full of cigar smoke and pomp. We are at a party thrown by Daniel Stern, a well known author, and as well known authors do-- they invite other well-known authors to their fancy cigar smoking parties. One of those well-known authors was a brooding, barely five-foot tall, big eyed, cigar smoker with the pen name George Sand-- and George had eyes for Chopin. George Sand was born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, or “Aurore” to her family. Yes, George Sand was a woman. And look, I know that some of you wanted a gay story on Gin and the Tonic and I’m sorry for tricking you with this one. Worry not, though! Because this is a show about music history. The gay abounds. And before we go on, let’s get this straight: two female authors that go by male pen names-- Aurore Dupin is George Sand. They met at a party thrown by Marie D’Agoult, who goes by Daniel Stern.
During Aurore Dupin’s life, it was very difficult, if not impossible for women to be published authors-- so many women, like Marie D’Agoult as Daniel Stern -- would use male pen names to get around this cultural roadblock. However, in their personal lives, it was an open secret who these women really were-- in fact, while for much of her career as George Sand she was heralded among the French literary giants like Victor Hugo, as Aurore Dupin was widely known for pushing back against these c sultural norms. In addition to the public cigar-smoking and frequenting mens’ only clubs... She wore pants. This was a big deal. At this time, women had to apply for a permit to wear men’s clothing-- be it for health or recreation or whatever. Dupin did not have a permit. And she did not plan on applying for one. She wore them explicitly for the purpose of subverting gender stereotypes and also because, as she said, they were “less expensive and far sturdier than the typical dress.” Also, you know, pockets. Victor Hugo admired her saying, “George Sand cannot determine whether she is male or female. I entertain a high regard for all my colleagues, but it is not my place to decide whether she is my sister or my brother.” Damn, Victor. If only some people in the 2020’s were as progressive as you were in the 1820’s.
In 1822, Dupin married the bastard, orphan son of a baron Casimir Dudevant. They had two children that may-or-may-not have been Casimir’s-- a boy named Maurice -- who is not important to this story but is actually super fascinating, he grew up and took his mother’s pen name, going by Maurice Sand, and revolutionized stage comedy and is part of a movement that paved the way to vaudeville and ultimately musical theatre -- and a girl named Solange, who would not take her mother’s name and is less interesting because she’s not Solange Knowles, however-- Solange is much more important to this story. She left Casimir in 1831 in order to partake in what she called a “romantic rebellion” - Aurore had a ho phase, we all do. She had public affairs with a bunch of socialist dudes (and one lady) with Wikipedia pages, most of which don’t say much about the men (and lady) themselves and more about how they used to hook up with George Sand. It was during this time that she became friends with Marie D’Agoult-- both progressive women around the same age, and both successful authors who used male pen names... And it was through this friendship that, in 1836 she found herself at a certain party with other cigar smoking, well-known authors.
Chopin was initially repulsed by Sand, saying of her “What an unattractive person. Is she really a woman?” The following year, they were madly in love with each other. In 1838, Sand wrote of Chopin, “I must say I was confused and amazed at the effect this little creature had on me ... I have still not recovered from my astonishment, and if I were a proud person I should be feeling humiliated at having been carried away." A “little creature” and an “unattractive person”, they were made for each other. Unfortunately, a side effect of a ho phase, as we all know, is one of those boys was bound to be crazy. Felicien Mallefille, another one whose Wikipedia page reads: wrote some plays, got fired by Franz Liszt for being a bad playwright, hooked up with George Sand -- began sending Dupin threats. Around this time, Chopin’s health was fading-- so Aurore decided it would be a good idea to go away for the winter to Mallorca, an island in the Mediterranean and not only nurse Chopin back to health but also to escape the threats of Mallefille.
It was an unseasonably cold winter in Mallorca. It was wet and miserable. And also Maurice and Solange were there. How romantic. It’s 1838 and because of that this should come as no surprise to you but Chopin, by now had developed incipient tuberculosis. Aurore knew about this, in fact he had it since before they got together-- but the cold and wet winter spent in Mallorca wasn’t particularly good for him. He complained of his doctors in Mallorca saying "Three doctors have visited me ... The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die." He requested that a piano be sent to him but it didn’t come for some time becuase you know, it’s a piano and they’re on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean and it’s 1838 -- but that didn’t stop Chopin. Aurore had furnished a small, sub-par by Chopin’s standard, piano that like him did not fair well in the unseasonable winter. Yet, it was during this winter and on this piano that Chopin would have one of the most productive compositional periods of his life where he would compose five pieces: a ballade, a scherzo, two polonaises, and of course... his preludes in E minor. E, of course, today’s tonic.
Chopin, Sand, Maurice and Solange returned from Mallorca and moved around for a bit before settling back in Paris in the Square d’Orleans in 1842 where they lived in adjacent buildings. It was at this point that Chopin started showing signs of his health deteriorating. The pianist Charles Hallé wrote of him that Chopin was “hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain.” Historians today believe that this might’ve been as a result of epilepsy. By 1846, Sand had become more of a nurse than a lover, openly referring to Chopin as her “third child” and a “sufferer” and her “beloved little corpse.” He was apathetic toward her socialist politics, and she had great disdain for Chopin’s high-society friends. This disdain extended to the now-19-year-old Solange’s fortune hunting husband. Aurore and Solange had famously loud and over the top fights, in which Chopin would often side with Solange-- which went over just as well as you think it would. It was against the backdrop of all this drama that Sand and Chopin would end their relationship in 1847. Oh yeah, and also Chopin somehow found it within himself, despite the tuberculosis and epilepsy, to hook up with Solange for awhile after he broke it off with Sand. So what did Sand do? What do you think she did? She went and hooked up with Franz Lizst.
In 1849, Chopin’s health would take a turn for the worse as his one surviving sister Ludvika and her family came to live with him. Though mostly his family remained by his side at the end, some would come entertain him on piano, as Chopin found himself too weak to play. On October 17, 1849 a doctor asked him if he was still suffering. “No longer,” Chopin replied. Those would prove to be his last words. His funeral was delayed by weeks because people had to buy tickets-- though people would show up without tickets from all over Europe. Over 3000 people attended his funeral. George Sand was not one of them. Chopin’s heart was preserved in a jar that has not been opened to this day, though a few visual examinations have been done to more accurately determine his cause of death-- which as recently as 2017, it seems no one can agree upon. Chopin’s improvisational style and revolutionary harmonic structure was a capstone of the romantic Era. His work is known for being played with rubato, outside of strict or conventional time often for dramatic effect. That’s Chopin though. A rule-follower, no. A flair for the dramatic, yes-- but also... timeless.